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The Human Factor

West Coast Resolution’s John Edwards Knows That When It Comes To Settling Cases, Good Lawyering Isn’t Always Enough

"Many years of litigation left me feeling that there must be a better way to resolve most of our conflicts. Even victories were achieved at such a high cost that both sides often came away feeling as if they had lost. After attending my first mediation with Ed Kolker, I realized that this was a process that I could learn and that I could believe in,” says John Edwards, founding member of the NCRC’s West Coast Resolution Group (WCRG).
A litigator since 1977, Edwards worked in both plaintiffs and defense work for years, with a particular emphasis in plaintiffs’ personal injury. However, the Martindale-Hubbell AV-rated attorney also handled countless cases involving employment disputes, complex business litigation, probate and trust and other civil litigation matters.
I wanted to be a mediator so badly, that I did my mediation training at Harvard. I knew it would be good training, and I knew it would look good on my resume,” he says. Still, Edwards admits that the cases didn’t just pour in following his education. “Even though I hadn’t specialized in real estate litigation, I went to the San Diego Association of REALTORS® who told me if I got my broker’s license, I could mediate their cases, so I did,” he says with a chuckle. Edwards’ mediation practice grew commensurate with his experience and ongoing training. By 2010, he was honored have helped found the West Coast Resolution Group, which Edwards counts as one of the best decisions he’s made. “I am surrounded by great mediators. We discuss issues, brainstorm ideas and collaborate with one another to improve our skills. The experience at WCRG has been incredible,” he says.

Cases with High Conflict People
Concurrent with helping to found WCRG, Edwards had what he calls an “eye-opening moment.” “I had the opportunity to work with Bill Eddy, founder of the High Conflict Institute,” Edwards says. “The methods that Bill has developed for working with High Conflict People in family law cases have proven to be effective in general civil litigation cases. I began to understand the basis behind the behavior that is often an impediment to cases settling,” he says. Moreover, studying the psychology of conflict and particularly the psychology of High Conflict People (HCP) has enabled Edwards to revisit his passion for psychology, which he once intended to make his career.
Edwards says, “Many, if not most of the cases that do not resolve early and end up in mediation are not there because of complicated factual or legal issues. Rather, difficult personalities drive these cases,” Edwards says. In fact, as many as 80% of Edwards’ cases “have reached mediation because at least one party involved in the dispute is a High Conflict Person, or is so emotionally charged that they are behaving like they are an HCP“ he says. According to the High Conflict Institute, the earmarks of an HCP include all-or-nothing thinking, unmanaged emotions, extreme behavior and blaming others.
Unfortunately, for people who are prone to blaming others for every problem in their life, even the most logical or fact based, research supported, lawyering will ultimately fail, according to Edwards. “The standard of practice of law in San Diego is extremely high. Personally, I was mentored by Pete Savitz who took a chance on me and showed me by example, what it took to be a good lawyer when I was first getting started. Good lawyers settle extraordinarily complex cases in San Diego all of the time. Lawyers are well trained to persuade by research, reason analysis and argument. But when you’re dealing with these types of personalities, no amount of lawyering will help,” he says. “My approach is to get these people out of the fight-or-flight zone and back into some semblance of rational problem solving,” he says.

The Psychology of Conflict 
For Edwards, the best way to get highly emotionally charged parties back into a state where they can be reasoned with, requires respect, attention and empathy. “In everyday life, we tend to avoid High Conflict People and so do others. But lawyers are in the business of conflict resolution, so if we’re not willing to deal with these people, we’re in the wrong field,” he says with a laugh.
Still Edwards explains that what happens to High Conflict People throughout life is that they are unable to see that they may be causing their own problems, and as such others don’t treat them with respect. To put it simply, they are difficult people to be around. Edwards therefore, makes it a point to clearly show respect. “When they come into my mediation, it is very important to me that all parties feel respected,” he explains.
Additionally, High Conflict People (including those who typically aren’t but are behaving as such) require empathy and attention. “As a litigator I have seen cases where the person wants their day in court so badly, that even if the monetary reward is the same in a trial as it would be in settling, they still insist on trial,” he says.
To that end, Edwards is determined to be empathetic and attentive to all parties in a mediation. “Although mediation is not therapy, there are ways of communicating and techniques that can be used to help resolve conflicts,” he says. For Edwards that begins with studying and understanding the psychology of conflict and the dynamics of the personalities of the parties that haven’t been able to resolve their conflicts. Then it is a matter of applying those specialized techniques. (Incidentally, Edwards acknowledges, that the High Conflict Person in any dispute may very well be one of the attorneys, rather than their client).

The Resolution of Conflict
“Of course, understanding the psychology of conflict and the personalities that may prevent them from being resolved alone is not enough to be an effective mediator,” Edwards says. “The skills to be a good mediator are good lawyering skills, and then some,” he says. But make no mistake the good lawyering is critical. “20% of my cases are about numbers.” In these cases, the reason that they are not being resolved is due to misinterpreted or a lack of communication.
“Say you have a case where the plaintiff is demanding $1 Million. The opposing party interprets that this demand means that they are unwilling to settle because it is unreasonable. So they refuse to give them their best offer, and offer $25K. The party who is demanding payment is offended, and begins to view the other party as being unwilling to settle because of the low offer. Both sides shut down,” he says.
“I believe that movement begets movement, so in these types of cases I have to determine what the real gap is, and I have to prevent one of the parties from walking away. Numbers communicate so much even when very little is said. When one party believes that settlement is impossible, they stop trying. But when they believe that settlement is possible, they are willing to work hard to resolve the case,” Edwards explains. Edwards’ enthusiasm for his work is palpable, and evidenced by his dedication to educating others about all that he has learned through his work with Bill Eddy, and through his 10 years of experience in mediation. “Once I started, I developed a passion for it that has thankfully stayed with me. I am now on the faculty at the High Conflict Institute, and I am an adjunct faculty member at the Strauss Institute at Pepperdine Law School teaching the Psychology of Conflict with Bill [Eddy].
I teach classes for free at Cal Western and Thomas Jefferson,” Edwards says.
“What I’ve learned in the last five years through this study has made me a better lawyer, a better mediator, and a better human.” All of that contributes to an even happier life which includes hiking, surfing, biking and spending time with his wife Susie, their three adult children, and their young grandson Cole.

“What I’ve learned in the last five years through this study has made me a better lawyer, a better mediator, and a better human.”


Karen Gorden

Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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About the Author: Karen Gorden is a Staff Writer for Attorney Journal.

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